Guest post by Peter Behrens

As part of the July Anansi/Behrens blog tour, Peter Behrens has written a guest post for my blog. This is a first for me, so I am very excited and honoured to be part of the tour and host this author on my site. Thank-you Peter and thank-you Anansi. Here he is:

Writing Women

Readers have responded passionately to the women characters in my novels — especially to Red Molly in The Law Of Dreams, and to Iseult in The O’Briens. Readers who fall in love with those characters sometimes ask “How are you (a man) able to write women characters so well?” My first response is pleasure that they, as readers, responded to the characters, felt involved with them and curious about them. But the question is kind of strange, when you think about it. As a novelist and a screenwriter I'm in the business of imagining characters, creating them and inhabiting them. Yikes, how dreary a book or a career would be if I could only imagine or see things from a “male” point of view!

What helps me with women characters is a lifetime of research! I've lived with women all my life! My mother, for a start. I grew up with two sisters, very close in age. I've had women friends all my life, and I'm married to a woman. It's fun to write the interior lives of women — the world seen and experienced from inside a women's head. It's a challenge but not much different from the challenge of inhabiting a male character. What bores me is a character too much like myself. When I was in my 20s and finding my feet as a writer many of the main characters in the short stories I was composing (for my collection Night Driving) tended to be young men in their 20s . . . it was a sort of egotism, really. I'm long since over that. I'm not at all interested in myself as a character. I'd rather dive into the minds, hearts and points-of-view of characters — men women and children — whose range of experience is quite outside my own.

Women are often more vocal and articulate about their feelings. I've watched and listened. I hope I've learned. And I'm glad that readers feel the authenticity of the women in The Law Of Dreams and The O’Briens . . .

The O'Briens

The O’Briens starts with us being introduced to Joe, grandson of Fergus, the central character in Behrens’ earlier novel, The Law of Dreams. We follow Joe and his family as they travel from Quebec to California, British Columbia and Maine, with a stop or two in Mexico and New York City. We see the world change over the course of 60 years from the viewpoint of several generations of the O’Brien family.

When we first meet Joe he is 13 years old, the eldest of five, and already the head of the house. His mother is failing and his father has disappeared, succumbing to the wanderlust that afflicts many of the O’Brien men. Joe is a fast learner and starts in business at a very young age, earning enough money to look after the whole family.

Joe is 17 when his mother dies, and he decides to move out west to make a fresh start and find his fortune. After making arrangements for the rest of his siblings, Joe makes stops at Coney Island to take stock and “…be alone with himself, to block out the world for a few days.” (p.53) For the first time in his life he is not only alone but free of all encumbrances and responsibilities. He finds it both exhilarating and paralysing and it takes a week of solitude and wrestling with a few demons before he is ready to move on and start carrying out the plan he outlined during his stopover: to find a wife, to have sons and daughters. When he meets Iseult Wilkins several years later in Venice, California, the first part of his plan falls into place.

Iseult recently lost her mother and is in a similar state to the one Joe was in at Coney Island. “She wanted to just be for awhile. To collect herself. Much of her life had just been a refraction of her parents’ desires and needs. She wanted light, and time to think…with nothing else for company.” (102) She feels unmoored but free. She wants to live with more intensity, and in that, she is a perfect match for Joe. Watching surfers at the beach with him, “She felt a tremble of excitement and suddenly knew she had to transpose her life into another key — harsher, riskier…she felt space opening up within her chest, lungs expanding, the power to breathe deeply and well.” (p.121)

Joe falls hard for Iseult and because of her, delays his trip to Mexico to examine a proposed railway route. After a whirlwind, five week courtship they are married and he whisks her off to Mexico for a combined honeymoon and business trip. Iseult is as open to adventure as Joe and shares his passion to try new things. He makes her things in a way she never has before. As the train enters Mexico, they are attacked by rebels and Joe pins her down to protect her. Amid the bullets and the screaming, Iseult feels “Slight nausea, exhilaration, and a sense of her life coming open, sudden and entire.” (p. 141) And so their married life begins.

They set up house in a tent in a railway camp in British Columbia, as Joe’s crew works on a section of the new railway system. Joe and Iseult contend with their share of difficulties and grief over the years, some of it seemingly unbearable, but with their strong foundation, no matter how off course they become, or adrift from one another, they always find each other again.

The first part of the novel is quite intense and we get to know Joe very well as a young man and then an infatuated husband. We know what he thinks and how he feels and gain some understanding of his motivations. After his Coney Island stop we don’t see Joe again until he meets Iseult in California. But now we see him through Iseult’s eyes, and in the beginning of their relationship they are extremely close and her view of him continues to be strong and fully developed. Later on, as the closeness of the marriage wanes and Iseult becomes less happy, and contemplates leaving Joe, the picture of Joe becomes more closed and remote.

The perspective of the story changes in the middle part as the second generation takes over. Joe and Iseult become secondary figures as we see the world through the eyes of their children, Mike, Margo and Frankie. We see Frankie grow up and watch Mike go off to war, estranged from his father. We feel Margo’s joy, then sadness as she falls in love, becomes a mother, and longs for her soldier husband to return. We get a broader picture now, a sense of more people, more change, more things happening in the world. It is like the stream of people that Iseult saw on the boardwalk in Venice. A general throng, an overall view, with no one thing standing out, except once in awhile something special, with more detail.

For example, Mike is a pilot with the RAF and and his view of the war and his sense of humour come through when he writes to Margo about how tired they all are and starting to make mistakes: “A chap was killed the other day flying into a Chance light. Good pilot too. If it were a hockey game we’d be calling for a line change!” (p.402) Or Johnny Taschereau, Margo’s husband, expressing his love but also a feeling of being disconnected:

I’m thinking of your wrists now.

I once knew my wife, down to her bones.

Do you have a sweet tan this summer? Comme une huronne?

Let me dispose of my adjectives, please. In your arms, please let me release them.








You see I have slipped into nouns… (p.430)

These are two brief examples of Behrens’ evocative language. He has a gift for painting a picture, of expressing that person in such a way that we see and understand them at that moment in their life.

Although the glimpses into their characters are illuminating, I miss the fact that none of the next generation is portrayed in the same depth as the parents. We get a peek into their makeup but we don’t spend as much time with them or get to know them as well. None of them has the personality of Joe or Iseult.

Overall, it is a colourful journey that we take with the O’Brien family as they live through six incredible decades of the twentieth century. They participate in two world wars, survive the Depression, and play a siginificant role in the building of the railroad. The world changes drastically from 1900 to 1960, and Joe at 73 is not the same person he was at 13. But he is still the patriarch, the strong centre of the family, and the one we care about the most. When the focus returns to him in the end we are happy to get to know him again and to see him finding his way once more.

Soldier of the Horse

By Robert W. Mackay, c2011, Touchwood Editions

Robert Mackay’s first novel is a fast-paced, gripping account of one soldier’s experience during WWI, based partially on his own father’s recollections of serving in the Canadian Cavalry.

Mackay creates a sympathetic hero in Tom Macrae, articling student who suddenly finds himself in trouble with the law. Tom takes the offer of a stint in the army rather than go to jail and is shipped off to Europe to serve in Lord Strathcona’s Horse. The muddy trenches of France are a far cry from his Winnipeg home, but Tom proves his mettle in his new circumstances and rises up the ranks to become lance-corporal, corporal, and eventually troop sergeant, before his time is up.

Mackay’s depiction of the war is vivid and gritty. When Tom rides into battle, stabbing with his bayonet, we can almost feel the resistance going in, then the arm swinging back as he removes the blade. We feel sick with dread as a troop scouts ahead of the front line into No Man’s Land, far from protection, open to bullets and grenades. The rain is cold, the mud stinks, it is always wet and dark and everyone is afraid. Such tenuous circumstances result in fierce bonds of trust and loyalty. These young men depend on each other for their lives every day. They also rely on their horses and their bond with them is complex, combining love, dependence, responsibility and protection. In one horrific scene, Tom and another soldier rescue a companion after his horse is shot and the soldier is thrown, exposed to the enemy. But the horse is not dead and the young soldier will not leave his horse to die slowly. As it screams in anguish, the soldier makes his way back to finish the job. Tom understands:

He could not bear the suffering of the horses, creatures that only did the bidding of men. Innocent, somehow. He had seen horses gutted, legs blown off, blinded, shot, even gassed, and he knew he would live with their screams for the rest of his life. (p. 154)

Mackay does not glamorize war. It is ugly, dirty and terrifying. The soldiers endure things that no one can without harm. Those who make it home are scarred, and are haunted by unwelcome memories. After the war, Tom attends a talk by his former general at The Empire Club in Winnipeg. As General Seeley starts to relate his “very thrilling story—the story of your Canadian Cavalry,” Tom cannot stop the images that assault him and he is forced to leave:

…he saw, once again, Flowerdew tumble from his saddle…he was alone on galloping Toby…blood spattering from his flayed legs…Horses screamed and men moaned for their mothers and Planck bled out on the ground. RenĂ© Carbonnier…died in Tom’s arms…Tom shuddered and left the hall, the general’s cultured tones fading. (p. 230)

His view of the war is not a “thrilling story” to be shared with others. It is personal and nightmarish, and he can’t even talk about it with his wife. When she reads from the newspaper about General Seeley’s speech, “He’s talking about the big picture,” said Tom. “All I know is it was a bloody mess from where I saw it.” (p.231)

But in the midst of the “bloody mess” and the brutality, Mackay shows us a story of humanity, loyalty, love and honour. Tom and his men are not fighting for glory or recognition. They simply want to survive and be allowed to return home to their families, marry their sweethearts, and live as normal a life as possible after the war. They test their courage every day, and despite their terror and against all odds, try to do what is right and necessary. Their actions are proof of their honour.

As most of the veterans from WWI have now passed away, Mackay’s book is a commemoration to them and other soldiers, and in particular to his own father. At least 15,000,000 soldiers and civilians were killed and another 20,000,000 were wounded in that Great War. Incomprehensible to think of those numbers and their long-lasting and far-reaching effects. Mackay shows us one tiny picture of the war through the eyes of a common soldier and reminds us what a precious thing it is to be able to lead an ordinary life.